Here are three questions about how the troop drawdown may affect the situation in Afghanistan.
1. What happens now to the peace talks with the Afghan Taliban?
The drawdown risks undermining the nascent peace process between the United States and the Afghan Taliban, ultimately making it more difficult for the U.S. government to leave the country on its terms. In 2018, U.S. diplomats worked to persuade the Afghan Taliban to come to the negotiating table. For much of the year, the Afghan Taliban remained unwilling to talk.
With only half as many U.S. troops remaining in the country, the Afghan Taliban may press home their advantage by accelerating the pace of attacks. The reduction in force level could now give the Taliban confidence that their strategy is working and that a full withdrawal of U.S. forces is a reasonable expectation.
The drawdown, in fact, might have been a potential U.S. bargaining chip on the negotiating table with the Afghan Taliban. But the White House decision was out of sync with the negotiations. It appears to have undercut the U.S. diplomat leading the negotiations with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was trying to signal that “American commitment was firm.”
2. Will Afghanistan see domestic political realignment and renewed danger of a civil war?
The U.S. drawdown risks triggering serious domestic political realignments in Afghanistan, destabilizing the political structure underlying the U.S.-backed regime. Senior Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai observes that Afghan political elites are comparing the modern period to the chaos following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Back then, the government of President Mohammad Najibullah, after losing its great power patron, rapidly lost ground as warlords and armed groups wrestled for control.
Those memories, combined with the state of the Taliban insurgency, may prompt domestic players to prepare for the worst-case scenario — a multiparty civil war. Some leaders may mobilize their ethnic bases of support while stepping up the process of arming themselves. Others may reach out to their foreign patrons and seek direct material support. These political realignments may increase the already high rate of defections from rank-and-file Afghan security forces.
3. And will terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, stand to gain?
The U.S. government claims al-Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan remains checked. My field research, however, suggests that al-Qaeda still has a serious skeleton capability in the region, specifically in eastern provinces like Paktika, which it is actively trying to rebuild.
The pressure on al-Qaeda might be sustained if Afghan intelligence agencies can substitute for the U.S. intelligence infrastructure that will fold with the drawdown. A surge in offshore U.S. capabilities, like aerial surveillance and communication interception, and armed striking platforms such as drones could enable the U.S. government to manage al-Qaeda’s threat.
That doesn’t mean al-Qaeda will be able to mount a major attack in the United States. Even with a robust external operations infrastructure, al-Qaeda will struggle to execute an attack inside the United States because of the layers of U.S. counterterrorism vigilance. However, the availability of a relatively conducive safe haven in Afghanistan can improve al-Qaeda’s ability to train recruits and plot the group’s next moves.
The situation in Afghanistan was grim as is. The unexpected drawdown adds to the complexity of a difficult situation. And it adds to the woes of Afghan civilians who have been caught up in the web of internal conflict for four decades.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct the title of President Mohammad Najibullah. We regret the error.
Asfandyar Mir is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.